The Widow at Nain & The Boy with Seizures
As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ - Luke 7:11-7
...a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? - Luke 9:37-43
If you’re a little disturbed by such harsh and un
friendly words coming from the mouth of Jesus in that second reading, you’re not alone. For many of us, it’s frankly alarming to imagine that Jesus was ever impatient or unsympathetic to people asking him for help. We expect Jesus to be the voice of comfort and encouragement, offering reassurance and grace. That’s certainly what we get in the first reading. Jesus has compassion; Jesus helps because he cares.
Why is there such a big difference in how Jesus speaks to a grieving mother one day and a distraught father on another? Can we live with the idea that Jesus was sometimes more and sometimes less generous with the people he met?
After all, the two scenarios have a lot in common – Jesus encounters somebody who is thought to be beyond help, but Jesus is able to help him. In both stories, Jesus deals with the parent of the person who needs a miracle, and in both stories, the person in need is the parent’s only son.
In the first case, Jesus is tender and kind with a woman whose son has died. “He had compassion for her,” the scripture says. In the second, when a man begs Jesus to help his son who has violent, epileptic seizures, Jesus is angry and judgmental, saying “‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I bear with you?” He still heals the boy, but he’s quite agitated in the moment.
It’s shocking, and you wonder why Jesus reacted this way.
Was the first parent more worthy of Jesus’ sympathy and help than the second? Did the second parent do something offensive that set Jesus off? The text doesn’t indicate any such thing. Both parents only wished for their sons to be well. No desire could be more basic, and nothing could be more right.
And so I think the difference in how Jesus speaks to them comes from what’s going on within Jesus, himself. He hasn’t changed into a different person from one story to the next; his desire and readiness to help people remains the same. But there are ways we see Jesus’ experience of his own life and work evolving, as time goes on, and the burden of fulfilling his calling became something new, the longer he ministered.
I don’t think it was ever easy to be Jesus, but it got harder as the days went by.
The story of the widow at Nain is found in Luke, chapter 7, and the deliverance of the young boy happens in Luke 9. Reading this whole section, you see Jesus’ mission, message and struggles becoming more acute. At times during these chapters, it seems like the principles and practice of the Jesus movement are truly taking hold, and the people who follow Jesus are inaugurating a divine reality of peace, provision and goodwill. Then, you read a couple more verses, and it’s all setbacks, obstinance and slander, that make you feel like nobody’s actually trying to see the kingdom come, at all.
I wonder how this affected Jesus. Did he feel discouraged, disappointed, maybe even jaded, at times? How did his disciples experience his mood and tone? Was there more frustration and less good cheer? And as people kept asking for miracles, did Jesus begin to feel used, by people who didn’t actually want to follow him? I don’t know the answers to these questions, it’s just stuff I think about.
I think about the third beloved son mentioned in these chapters of Luke, between the son of the grieving mother, and the son of the distraught father. It’s Jesus, himself.
The day before Jesus delivered the boy from the demon, he’d been up on a mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James and John. They witnessed him transfigured in glory, and heard a voice from God, saying, “This is my beloved Son, the Chosen One.”
Jesus was a beloved son, and he knew that that he was going to suffer, but despite doing so much for so many, when his tribulation came, almost no one would be there for him.
If you’ve felt worn out, depleted, and like all you ever do is give, to a world that only wants to take, and you’ve got your own stuff to worry about – painful things, scary things – and still you have to give and give, well, you may have found yourself speaking impatiently and uncharitably to people, even though you did still care about them. You don’t want to be mean, but you’re just speaking out of what you’re going through. This is a thing that happens with human beings.
Back up on that mountain, when God told the disciples that Jesus was God’s son, God said one more simple thing. First, “The is my beloved son, my Chosen One.” And then, “Listen to him!”
I think it’s hard, whether you’re Jesus Christ, or a police officer or a classroom teacher, or a medical doctor, when people want your help, they want you to do things for them, but they don’t want to listen to you. About 9 months ago, I started reading articles about burnout among doctors and nurses caring for Covid patients. They weren’t just overworked; they were struggling to serve patients who’d refused to get vaccinated, and who had rejected all the information that doctors had been giving them about the pandemic. But then, when they got Covid, and got real sick, and found themselves at death’s door, they expected doctors and hospitals to take care of them, and save their lives.
Of course, the doctors did take care of them, and when possible, they did save their lives. But they were made weary and jaded, from being asked to heal people who would not listen, over and over again. One doctor said that her well of compassion was almost dry.
Was something like this going on with Jesus? I don’t know, but maybe. Jesus’ heart to help people, to bless them, to care for them, didn’t change. But perhaps his perspective was evolving with time and experience.
One compelling fact about the gospel of Luke is that, as Jesus’ ministry progresses, he actually performs fewer miracles. The stories with large crowds and Jesus healing people dawn to dusk are closer to the beginning of the narrative. By the halfway point in the story, Jesus is healing just one person, every now and then. In Jerusalem, during his last week before he is crucified, Jesus doesn’t heal anybody.
Something about Jesus’ relationship to this aspect of his work changed, over time. Has that kind of thing ever happened to you? Something that was central to what you did and who you were, became less central? Was it a conscious choice you made, or something you barely noticed as the shift was taking place?
If the change was deliberate for Jesus, I wonder what his reasons were. If I had to guess, I’d say that Jesus’ miracles were not achieving all of what he intended. The miracles were meant to be more than what was happening in the moment. When Jesus healed or fed someone, it was of course to meet some immediate tangible need. But it was also to show people – this is how we are meant to be together. We help. We share food. We invest in one another’s healing. But having witnessed Jesus’ miracles, were people taking on the values they represented?
Imagine somebody wins the lottery, 10 million dollars, let’s say. And she decides to give all the money away. Now, in immediate terms, she’s probably thinking, I can really help some people out, by giving them money. But in a much bigger sense, she’s thinking, I want inspire the world to be generous. I want to give what I have, so that people will be encouraged to believe that they can give what they have. That’s the plan, but as soon as she starts giving away money, people just flock to her, with their hands out. Hey, can I have some?
And she gets a lot of praise and admiration for being so generous, but what she really wanted was for everyone to give the way she was giving. She was trying lead, by example, and after doing it for a while, she starts asking herself, does anybody even care about what I’m saying? Does anybody care why I’m doing what I’m doing? Or do people just want my money?
Jesus wants to give good things to us. He wants heal us. He wants to feed us. He wants to welcome us. He loves you, and he loves me. But if we really accept Jesus into our hearts, it means more than just taking whatever blessings we can get that he’s giving out. It means taking up the cause of Christ, and choosing to walk the path upon which he leads us.
Jesus loves, and asks us to love. He gives, and expects us to give. He healed the sick, and now entrusts the sick to his disciples. He triumphed over the violence of the cross, and now asks us to face violence as peacemakers.
I pray all the time, and I ask Jesus to help me, and to help people that I love. I hope that I never hear the voice of Jesus shouting back at me, as I pray, calling me faithless and perverse. But if I do, I know the question I’ll need to ask: Have I been willing to give my life to Jesus, as I asked Jesus to bless me? Amen.